The Capacity for Tolerance

What can Christians do about the religious intolerance made visible during the last month?
Acceptance, photo by Racine

"Compassion, forgiveness, and unconditional love define the basic message of the gospel of Jesus."

Photo by Racine.

Following the events of September 11, 2001, Rabbi Ted Falcon, Pastor Don Mackenzie, and Sheikh Jamal Rahman became colleagues and friends, brought together by a desire to confront fear and hatred with earnest interfaith dialogue. Known collectively as the "Interfaith Amigos," they blog weekly for YES! Magazine.

September 2010 has seen the ninth anniversary of 9/11, the widespread anger and fear concerning the building of an Islamic cultural center in the neighborhood of Ground Zero in New York, and Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement—all coinciding with one another. In Seattle, where I live, a synagogue and a Jewish school were defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti the night before Yom Kippur. At my church the following Sunday, we read at the top of our worship bulletin, “All pretense gone, naked heart revealed to the hiding self, we stand on holy ground between the day that was and the one that must be.” This is a quote from the Jewish New Union Prayer Book for the Days of Awe. The choir sang two anthems with words written by children in concentration camps, marking the depth and anguish of the moment. 

“All pretense gone, naked heart revealed to the hiding self, we stand on holy ground between the day that was and the one that must be.”

It is extremely important for Christian people to be aware of the harm done over and over again to non-Christians in the name of the gospel of Jesus. The idea that adherents to other religions are wrong is given many different names; but always, the result is that people who are “not like us” are marginalized and harmed. What could be further from the gospel of Jesus, in which compassion, forgiveness, and unconditional love define the basic message?

It is not just intolerance, which would be bad enough. It extends to violent abuse, physical harm, and death. This is not what religion and spirituality are about. 

At a gathering the evening before 9/11, Ted and Jamal and I said that we are glad that the intolerance in this country has surfaced—because it is present and needs to be addressed. At least one person wrote to us saying he didn’t think Americans were intolerant. Would that that were so. 

There is a systemic intolerance in the world. It is in all cultures and all places; the potential for it lives in every human heart. When I say “systemic” I mean it is a possibility in the same way that evil is a possibility. It is held by cultures and can enter individuals living in those cultures.  

Intolerance is alive and well. But religion, and the spirituality it bears within it, brings a message of hope—that with spiritual practices, the space in the human heart that might be filled with evil things can, instead, be filled with good things. Tolerance is definitely not enough; it is just the first step. We can actually learn to appreciate and give thanks for the differences that we bring to our communities, which help us to see our differences as well as our similarities. The differences give us deep insights into the nature of who we are and what we can do.

Getting to the Heart of Interfaith

Getting to the Heart of Interfaith

By Ted Falcon, Don Mackenzie, Jamal Rahman
Skylight Paths Publishing, 2009, 183 pages, $16.99

Support YES! when you buy here from an independent bookstore.

New York Times columnist Susan Dominus, describing the future possibilities for an interfaith cultural center in New York, imagines:

Inside a spacious, spare chapel on that floor, there is no sign of the Roman Catholic Mass held the previous Sunday; instead a rabbi from Brooklyn is leading in prayer some congregants who have joined her for a special service at Park51, a community center founded by Muslims, where her sermon will focus on the tradition of hospitality common to all Abrahamic religions…Park51, a lightning rod for anger and discord, seems to be the least likely place right now for this idyll to bloom. Then again, as Hillel might have wondered: if not there, where?

 There are probably 50 variations of the admonition “Do not be afraid” in the gospels and the epistles in the Bible; even more are in the Old Testament, in Jewish scripture. This is clearly one of the strongest messages of our traditions.  

We need not fear each other. We should be afraid, though, of what the world will look like if we do not learn to live together peacefully and imaginatively, honoring the essential dignity of every person.

 If not now, when? If not there, where? 


  • : The current flap over the proposed Islamic center-cum-mosque in New York City offers a good opportunity to reflect on the nature and purpose of places of worship.
  • : The Interfaith Amigos reflect on what it will take to reach the other side of hatred.
  • : How relinquishing our innate pursuit of power and embracing compassion can lead to a more peaceful world.
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